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He was born at Feckenham Forest, Worcestershire, into a family of substantial yeomen. The family name was Howman, but, according to the English custom, Feckenham, when he became a monk, changed it for the place name by which he is known (Thomas Fuller notes in Worthies of England that he was the last clergyman to be "locally surnamed"). His early education came from the parish priest, but he was sent at an early age to the claustral school at Evesham and from there, in his eighteenth year, to Gloucester Hall, Oxford , as a Benedictine student. After taking his degree in arts, he returned to the abbey, where he took monastic vows. He returned to Oxford in 1537 and took his degree of Bachelor of Divinity on June 11, 1539. He was back at Evesham when the abbey was surrendered on 27 January 1540 in the dissolution of the monasteries; and then, with a pension of £10 a year, he went back to Oxford, but soon after became chaplain to Bishop Bell of Worcestor and then served Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, in that same capacity from 1543 to 1549.
In 1544 Bonner gave him the living of Solihull; and Feckenham established a reputation as a preacher and a disputant of keen intellect but unvarying charity. After Bonner was deprived of his see, in about 1549, Thomas Cranmer sent Feckenham to the Tower of London, and while there learning and eloquence made him such a successful advocate that he was temporarily freed ("borrowed out of prison") to take part in seven public disputations against John Hooper, John Jewel and others. Released by Queen Mary I on her accession in 1553, he returned to Bonner and became prebendary of St Paul's, rector of Finchley, then of Greenford Magna, chaplain and confessor to the queen, and Dean of St Paul's (March 10 1554). He took part in the Oxford disputes against Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley; but he disliked the bigotry and brutal measures in force against Protestants. Feckenham used all his influence with Mary "to procure pardon of the faults or mitigation of the punishment for poor Protestants" (Fuller), and he was sent by the queen to prepare Lady Jane Grey for death. When the future Elizabeth I of England was sent to the Tower (March 18, 1554), Feckenham interceded for her life and liberty, even at the cost of displeasing the queen.
In May 1556 the degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him by the University of Oxford, and the royal abbey of Westminster having been restored to its former use, Feckenham was appointed abbot, and the old life began again within its hallowed walls on November 21, 1556. The abbey school was reopened and the shrine of St Edward restored.
Queen Elizabeth on her accession in 1558 sent for the abbot and is said to have offered him the archbishopric of Canterbury if he would conform to the new faith, but he could not do so. He sat in her first parliament, and was the last mitred abbot to do so. He consistently opposed all the legislation for changes in religion, and, when the hour of trial came, he refused the oath of supremacy, rejecting Elizabeth's offer to allow him to remain with his monks at Westminster if he would conform to the new laws. The abbey was dissolved on July 12, 1560, and within a year Feckenham was sent by Archbishop Matthew Parker to the Tower (May 20, 1560), according to Jewel, "for having obstinately refused attendance on public worship and everywhere declaiming and railing against that religion which we now profess" (Parker Society, first series, p. 79).
Except for some brief periods when he was a prisoner at large, Feckenham spent the rest of his life in confinement either in some recognized prison, or in the more distasteful and equally rigorous keeping of the Bishops of Winchester and Ely. After fourteen years' confinement, he was released on bail and lived in Holborn, where his benevolence was shown by all manner of works of charity. "He relieved the poor wheresoever he came, so that flies flock not thicker to spilt honey than beggars constantly crowd about him" (Fuller). He set up a public aqueduct in Holborn, and a hospice for the poor at Bath; he distributed every day to the sick the milk of twelve cows, took care of orphans, and encouraged sports on Sundays among the youth of London by giving prizes.
In 1577 he was committed to the care of Bishop Richard Cox of Ely with strict rules for his treatment; and Cox could find no fault with him except that "he was a gentle person but in the popish religion too, too obstinate." In 1580 he was moved to Wisbech Castle , and there exercised a good influence among his fellow-prisoners; this was remembered when, in later years, the notorious Wisbeach Stirs broke out. Even here Feckenham found a means of doing public good; at his own cost he repaired the road and set up a market cross in the town. After twenty-four years of suffering for his conscience, he died in prison and was buried in an unknown grave in the parish church at Wisbech on October 10 1584.
Among the few pieces published by Feckenham are the Conference-Dialogue held between Lady Jane Grey and himself, and several funeral orations or sermons.
The fullest account of Feckenham is to be found in F Taunton's English Black Monks of St Benedict (London, f 897), vol. i. pp. 160-222.
- This entry incorporates public domain text originally from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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